John Jay College of Criminal Justice logo 2014In case you missed it, as they say: Reporter Michael Kiefer opened a four-part series yesterday about the prevalence (or its opposite) of prosecutorial misconduct.

That is bound to be a controversial issue, but I’m sure many will read this week’s Arizona Republic coverage closely.

His first piece is here.

That is certainly relevant to my legal audience, even if the topic will rankle some (if you want to see how much, just scroll down past his article to the reader comments beneath. Sheesh!). But besides the article’s substantive value, I also was intrigued by an acknowledgment included with it:

“This series was researched and written as part of a fellowship with The Guggenheim Foundation and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.”

Arizona Attorney Magazine January 2012 cover criminal sentencingHey, I know the John Jay College—because I also had the opportunity to be named a Guggenheim Fellow a few years ago. As such, I traveled to New York for a targeted symposium on crime in America.

As a working writer, it is quite a luxury to have a trip dedicated to learning—especially when your expenses are paid. In an annual conference, the Guggenheim Foundation brings a parade of national experts before a group of 25 or so journalists to help dissect the criminal justice system. (I got to attend another Guggenheim workshop, in Reno, on incarceration and release issues, in 2008).

The repayment you make to that cutting-edge learning is that you commit to coverage of a related topic. My coverage—on criminal sentencing and the political possibilities for change—appeared in the January 2012 Arizona Attorney Magazine.

Kiefer’s a great reporter, and I can picture the Manhattan room he sat in; I wonder if it snowed during his East Coast trip too. I look forward to what he can accomplish this week (with the Gannett machine behind him!). Write to me at arizona.attorney@azbar.org and let me know what you think of the coverage.

Guggenheim acknowledgment

In the January 2012 issue, I thanked the John Jay College and Guggenheim folks for a terrific learning experience.

An Arizona story that may only rate B-section coverage today in the newspaper and among readers’ attention is one that tells a variety of tales about the state’s legal community.

The story reports that the State Bar of Arizona has filed a formal complaint against the Apache County Attorney and his former chief deputy attorney. The allegations stem from inappropriate conversations with and pressure on a defendant in custody, out of the presence of his lawyer. According to the Bar’s allegations, the interview was ordered by County Attorney Michael Whiting and his chief deputy Martin Brannan.

So egregious was the conduct, Superior Court Judge Donna Grimsley found, that she dismissed the first-degree murder charges with prejudice.

Here is the story about the Bar complaint.

But there is far more to it than that. And to know that, you need only search the White Mountain Independent—or even the pages of the Arizona Republic.

There, you will find that the prohibited interview was performed by two investigators, including Brian Hounshell.

Apache County Attorney Michael Whiting outside the courthouse in St. Johns, Ariz., June 16, 2009. (AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca)

Does his name sound familiar? That may be because he is the former Apache County Sheriff. He eventually lost his job after being indicted in 2005 by the Arizona Attorney General for misuse of public monies, as well as “fraudulent schemes and artifices” and theft. He ultimately pled guilty and was sentenced to three years’ probation and a one-year deferred jail sentence.

Grant Woods had been brought in as a special prosecutor to try the case against the sheriff. He argued, successfully, that, “This sheriff, for all the good he did, ended up being a two-bit thief, day after day, month after month.”

No matter. Hounshell’s eventual conviction did little to reduce him in the eyes of County Attorney Whiting, who hired him as an investigator.

At the time, Attorney General Terry Goddard said he was “concerned” about the ex-felon’s hiring, saying that it may violate portions of Hounshell’s plea agreement.

No matter. Whiting went ahead with the 2009 hiring. And by early 2010, Hounshell and another investigator had visited the defendant in jail “and pressed him to plead guilty or face a possible death penalty.” For good measure, Hounshell also allegedly threatened charges against the defendant’s wife.

Now the Bar is looking into what went on up there in Apache County. But there is one more part of the story that tells us something about Arizona’s changing legal community.

Brian Hounshell

That judge who got the ball rolling? She is Presiding Judge Donna Grimsley. And she is the first woman ever elected to the position of Superior Court Judge for Apache County. And now she has placed herself in the center of a firestorm—which is sometimes what a judge has to do.

I do not know the judge, and it’s always best to avoid simplistic psychoanalysis. But a judge setting aside a murder conviction, with prejudice, for prosecutorial misconduct? That is a thunderclap. If there is a definition for “good-‘ol-boy network,” it probably includes the rehiring of a sheriff with a felony conviction, and a sense of hubris and untouchability that would lead to a jailhouse interview that a second-year law student could spot as a constitutional violation.

And after what may prove to be years of odd goings-on in the White Mountains, the statement that “this will not stand” came from a woman who pioneered her way into a historic position.

Donna Grimsley, Presiding Judge for Apache County

On the White Mountain Independent’s comments section, there are already calls for her recall. That’s a battle for another day. But her ruling has signaled a new way of doing business. We’ll see if it’s a way that is preferred by the people who elect judges.